'Escaping the KKK' and Reality TV's Dilemma: To Pay or Not to Pay for Access?

To pay or not to pay for access-Illustration by Wren McDonald - P 2017
Illustration by Wren McDonald

As the nonscripted business pushes into higher-stakes territory, networks and producers work out how avoid the blunder that sank A&E's planned docuseries about the Ku Klux Klan.

After a packed week of heavy hype and a barrage of criticism, A&E announced on Christmas Eve that it had pulled the plug on its Ku Klux Klan docuseries. Escaping the KKK — which featured Klan leaders and their family members who didn't want to be a part of the organization — had been done in by an ethical misstep.

The network didn't mince words. A&E executives had learned from the doc's third-party producers, This Is Just a Test, that Klansmen had received what they believed were nominal cash payments to "facilitate access" in the field. And while doing so may have been in "direct violation" of A&E's "policies for a documentary," as the statement read, the practice of paying subjects is common in many corners of the unscripted arena — not unlike the subsequent unconfirmed allegations that the producers also requested additional takes and presented prescripted scenarios. How to reconcile these two realities, particularly as the genre shifts from Keeping Up With the Kardashians-style docusoaps to more Making a Murderer documentary series, has become a subject of debate throughout the industry.

"They didn't do anything more than the rest of us do on most shows — they just did it while touching the third rail," says one of a half-dozen prominent reality producers who would speak only on the condition of anonymity, with a rival cable entertainment executive acknowledging he watched the KKK saga play out with "a bit of 'there but for the grace of God go I.' "

Several, including Investigation Discovery group president Henry Schleiff, say the genre would benefit from more clarity. "The reality is that the term itself, reality TV, is pretty confusing," he says, noting how the catch-all descriptor is now being used to encompass everything from soft-scripted docusoaps (Duck Dynasty) to the kind of fact-based crime docs that line his network, despite the fact that each subgenre requires a different set of standards and protocols. Paying subjects, for instance, is part and parcel to the process of producing a docusoap, according to reality veteran David Lyle, who explains: "These people are giving you time out of their lives, so, at minimum, you have to give them enough money to compensate them for not working"; while the integrity of a crime documentary would be immediately compromised if the featured felon was being compensated. Says HBO president of documentary films Sheila Nevins, "By paying, you ruin the verisimilitude and honesty of the presentation." The challenge, of course, is that increasingly the same producers are moving fluidly between the subgenres.

"Reality TV producers are the worst people to go out and inject themselves into real situations because they've been trained by the companies for whom they work and the networks to whom they sell to get multiple takes of things or to script interview bites and feed them to their participants, and getting those people to unlearn those skills is almost impossible," says one top reality producer, who like many is reconsidering the talent pool from which he hires, noting those with news and documentary backgrounds suddenly are in high demand.

In the wake of the KKK debacle, multiple execs suggest they've become that much more skittish about partnering with greener production companies, especially when dealing with controversial fare. "These are rougher waters today," explains one, "and we want to work with someone who may have been there before." Perhaps ironically, TIJAT, whose pre-KKK résumé included such lower-stakes series as History's Big Rig Bounty Hunters and Animal Planet's Project Grizzly, was being heralded as the "hot new company" before Escaping the KKK unraveled. (It's worth noting that paying subjects in both of the aforementioned series would not raise eyebrows.)

Others are quietly exploring ways to better monitor their productions, with one weighing surprise set visits to ensure everything in a show's budget checks out. To be sure, all payments, whether in the form of talent fees or per diem rates, are traditionally hashed out with the network preproduction, though often there is additional cash allotted for one-off payments to solve minor problems as they come up. Going forward, A+E CEO Nancy Dubuc has said publicly that she and her team will "have to be more surgical and tailored in how we're dealing with our partners." In the meantime, A+E Networks is said to be wrapping up its internal investigation into how the incident happened and who knew. Despite potential interest from foreign buyers, Escaping the KKK is being shelved indefinitely, with A+E eating the vast majority of the costs. Both the network and TIJAT declined comment.

As for producers, the KKK situation seems only to have made some more weary of their network partners. Though A&E insiders insist the network was not complicit, multiple producers describe unrelated scenarios in which they felt pressured by their host network to deliver "stuff that was bigger and louder and wilder and crazier than whatever they saw last year," and at any cost. (Despite differences in size and scale, production companies indemnify the networks for which they produce.) At least two producers say they now are demanding all network requests be put in writing. "I deal every day across all of our shows with networks that intentionally don't want to know how the sausage is made but expect it on the table at 6 o'clock and to taste a certain way," bemoans one. "They're flying blind by choice because they want to be able to dictate the scenes they receive and would prefer plausible deniability as to how you get them."

Jonathan Murray, who pioneered the genre with MTV's The Real World and now vacillates between docusoaps and documentaries, says the best solution, at least for now, is simply to define expectations of what kind of show is being made up front. "It's a reminder that we need to all be on the same page as to how we approach projects," he says. "It doesn't necessarily mean that one way is right and one way is wrong."

This story first appeared in the March 29 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.